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Life on tour: Realities of trying to make it in professional golf

Cameron Raymond bagged first pro win in Spain and is learning on path to the top

There’s a Twitter account worth a follow called Monday Q Info which keeps track of the qualifiers which take place every Monday for players to get into that week’s PGA Tour event. Only a couple of spots are ever up for grabs but the field is always full of players knowing that they need to shoot something in the mid-60s to have any chance of getting a spot at the week’s main event. Post a few more good scores on the big stage and their lives could change forever.

That’s the jackpot thousands of professional golfers chase every week, every month and every year. The golf we all flick on to watch on a Sunday night is only the tiniest portion of that world. The first Major of the year at Augusta next week is a portion even smaller. Whether it’s Monday qualifiers, mini tours or qualifying school the focus is purely to move on to the next level.

On this side of the world the European Tour is the pinnacle with the Challenge Tour beneath that while the likes of the EuroPro Tour and the Alps Tour are a level below as well as multiple mini tours around the continent which give professionals the chance to compete for money and earn their way up the ladder. Expenses are tight, the prize money is small and the standard of play is high.

Have a look at recent Alps Tour leaderboards and you'll see the name Matteo Manassero. If that name rings a bell it's because he's the Italian wonderkid who took the European Tour by storm in 2010, winning twice at the age of 17 in Spain and Malaysia before adding two more titles - including the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in 2013 - to get as high as 25th in the world rankings before it all fell apart.

Now 27-years-old and ranked 897th in the world, the Italian is trying to battle his way back to the top alongside others who have been there and experienced hard times as well as fresh-faced young pros just getting used to the idea of playing for a living.

Down on the Costa del Sol in Spain the Toro Tour has given plenty of young European pros a circuit to compete on over the pandemic-hit early months of 2021 and last month it provided Dubliner Cameron Raymond with his first win in the paid ranks when he shot a final round 64 to come out on top at Azata Golf Club in Estepona.

The €1,000 winning cheque, which he used to cover his next few tournament entries, is a long way from the millions that will be handed out at Augusta but winning at any pro level is an achievement and finishing with three birdies in a row is quite a way to do so. After getting up-and-down on the 16th for a birdie four his playing partner told him he was in a tie for the lead. The 22-year-old promptly responded by making two more birdies at the 17th and 18th to finish at two under par - after an opening round 76 - and win by two shots.

Scholarship

Originally from Newlands Golf Club but now attached to St Anne's on Bull Island, Raymond played at national level for Ireland from the age of 14 to 18 before turning pro in 2018 when he was still a teenager.

While many aspiring players will go down the US college scholarship route, Raymond says the offers were on the table but: “I realised when I sat down and talked about it that I was going over for the wrong reasons. I only wanted to go over for what I’m doing now which is practicing in good weather. So all the coaches I had talked to I got back to and told them I’d no real interest so I’d knock it on the head and turn professional.”

Once you're in a position where you're financially okay you don't have to worry about it too much

With some mentoring from 2008 Spanish Open winner Peter Lawrie - himself a former Newlands member - Raymond progressed through the first stage of European Tour qualifying school at Bogogno Golf Resort in Italy in 2018 before missing out at second stage.

Since then he has played on the developmental EuroPro Tour and last October shot a final round 66 at qualifying school to join fellow Irish pros Ronan Mullarney, Conor O'Rourke and Stuart Grehan in earning the maximum Category 3 status on that circuit for the upcoming season which begins in May at Harleyford Golf Club in England.

Since 2019 he has been spending the first few months of each year in Spain where his coach, Steven Palmer, runs a golf academy. This year in particular the opportunity to practice and play in the sun to prepare for the upcoming EuroPro Tour season has proved invaluable with Irish golf courses closed since December 31st.

With entry fees for each event priced at around €250 the costs could add up but he keeps expenses low by planning meals for the week and, with Covid restrictions in place, doing little else bar practicing and playing the PlayStation in the evenings.

“At the end of the day, there is some pressure playing for money but until you get on the European Tour you’re not really playing for money,” he says. “You’re just trying to get off the small tours. Once you’re in a position where you’re financially okay you don’t have to worry about it too much.

"I've a couple of sponsors - Kedington (an IT company in Dublin) have been a big support and St Anne's have been a massive help being attached there. It's such a good club to be attached to and it's so close to my house up in Artane. That's the only thing which is a bit weird about being pro is that you're kind of relying on other people's money."

The reality, undoubtedly, is that without some financial backing it would be almost impossible to give the professional game a proper go. Take a typical EuroPro Tour event: for a player to travel over from Ireland paying for flights, accommodation, food and the £295 entry fee they’d be looking at a total cost of close to €1,000.

If they win the event they’ll get a cheque for about £10,000 and make a nice profit but with less than £1,000 typically being handed out for any finish outside the top-10 there’s a lot of pressure on - and a lot of other good players to beat - just to break even for the week.

Gamble

Fancy having a go at European Tour qualifying school? That’ll be almost €2,000 just to enter and you have to get through three stages with around 1,000 hopefuls and only 25 European Tour cards on offer after the final stage. An expensive gamble to say the least and it’s little wonder many give up the ghost after a few years, tired of the grind, being away from home and the loneliness that can go with it, opting instead for the stable salary of a job as a club pro.

As good as it is, it's very much either for you or it's not

“I saw it over that first year is that it’s a real dog-eat-dog out here (on tour). No one really gives a shit about you out here,” Raymond says. “You know when you come in from your club competition at home and everyone is talking about how you get on and that, everyone over here just gets on with their jobs and then leaves.

“I would say in the same breath that when you’re at EuroPro or whatever there’s a good group of Irish lads there. Obviously there’s not many of us so we all know each other and we always try and help each other but other than that, like, I’ve played so many events over a few days where I haven’t actually really spoken to the guys I was playing with. And if you asked anyone, I wouldn’t be a quiet guy.

“As good as it is, it’s very much either for you or it’s not. You talk to older lads who played over the years and then just stopped and you ask them why and they’ll tell you they just couldn’t hack it. It’s a lot of time on your own and when things do go badly you could be in the middle of nowhere in a country with no English-speakers around you, you’ve had a nightmare and you’re just by yourself. It takes very good mental strength and if you’re happy enough being by yourself you’ll like it but you have to take the good with the bad.”

Raymond credits former European Tour caddie and now performance coach Jude O'Reilly with getting him in to meditation which he says helps to maintain a good headspace both on and off the course. It's important, he says, to take days off and focus on something else entirely whether it be fishing, going to a football match or a recent trip up the Sierra Nevada mountains in Spain to go skiing. Any job - even if it is playing golf in the sun - can at times feel very much like a job.

“It can get difficult at times. But that’s why I focus a lot on taking time off. People expect you to practice all day every day but it’s like any job, if you don’t take days off eventually it’ll just eat you up.”